02 Nov 2008
Boston Baroque’s Xerxes shows the way
Is Boston Baroque period performance’s best kept secret?
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Is Boston Baroque period performance’s best kept secret?
Certainly, Martin Pearlman’s band has been out there on CD as well as live performance since 1973, but somehow, they’ve never quite garnered the international renown that is more than their due. Perhaps that is down to the very nature of their home city — sequestered as they are in leafy streets and squares, an academic island insulated from the hue and cry of New York’s glitzier scene — let alone the period powerhouses across the Atlantic. Perhaps it is just their choice? If so, that’s lucky for their European competitors, some of whom might have to look to their laurels.
Boston Baroque have a fine record of producing Handelian opera with limited space and resources and with their most recent Xerxes, presented semi-staged by first-time opera director Paul Peers in the fine acoustic of Jordan Hall, (seating 1100), they have succeeded again. The key to this Xerxes was the integration of a fine cast of mainly young singers with a band that has this musical idiom in their very fibre, and a lean semi-staging by Paul Peers that used the limited space to good effect without making the mistake of imposing too much business onto music and a sparkling libretto that doesn’t need it. The musicians were seated centrally on the stage, and the singers moved around, behind and in front of them, using various exits (and the auditorium itself occasionally) to give visual variety. Dress was modern, unexciting but acceptable.
If Handel didn’t have much success with this opera at its London opening (it only lasted 5 nights) and was soon moving on into the more reliable world of oratorio, this is no reflection on his genius. It was simply that Xerxes was just too explorative, too outré, too challenging in its musical design, for the opera seria buffs of 1738. For a start, many of the arias don’t follow the set pattern of A-B-A of the time; there are less formal, more flowing sections of arioso and chatty recitative that move the action forward without so many regular stops for star-vehicle arias. And there is, of course, with the Elviro servant character, out and out comedy, almost buffo, that hardly fitted the pattern of the day. There is the usual romantic cats-cradle of mistaken identity, forbidden love, and jealousies of course, but this is a more tender, more emotional, exploration of humanity’s foibles than Handel often pursued.
The casting of baroque opera in the USA is less problematic than it used to be back when Boston Baroque was in the vanguard of period performance. More conservatories are now including period performance practice in their curricula, but it’s still not mainstream in the way that it often is in the capitals of Europe. For young singers fighting for work in America it’s tough, and they have to be adaptable — and take every opportunity to learn from specialists like Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque. This particular cast was, by and large, — considering the results — surprisingly inexperienced in the genre: the more to their, and Pearlman’s credit.
On the female side, only soprano Amanda Forsythe as the foxy, feisty Atalanta, forever interfering, could be described as au fait with Handel and if she was tempted on occasion to over-egg the comedy, it was an appealing performance that showcased some brilliant highwire work. Equally pleasing to the ear was mezzo Leah Wood in the difficult role of the wronged and rather out-of-sorts Amastre, although a little more volume might have helped her in her more declamatory music which she sang with commitment and a warm steady tone throughout. Marie Lenormand took the role of prince Arsamenes, often these days sung successfully by countertenors, and although she sang with great expressiveness her soft-grained mezzo soprano and natural femininity of movement rather prevented her from fully inhabiting the character — a lovely young singer, but rather miscast here. An exciting voice for the future is talented Texan soprano Ava Pine who sang the role of Romilda, beloved by both King Xerxes and his brother Arsamenes. She belied her inexperience in the genre to give a riveting performance that grew with every scene, her richly expressive soprano under fine control throughout, with plenty of dynamic on tap when needed.
With the male performers, without doubt the star of the show was male soprano Michael Maniaci in the title role. Maniaci, experienced in both baroque and classical style, has a growing and deserved reputation as a fine young singer with some recent major successes both in North America and Europe (his Armando in the recently released DVD of the Fenice production of Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto caused quite a stir), and this was his first attempt at a role which up to now has almost always, for obvious reasons, gone to period-specialist mezzos. It was the right decision as the role was perfect for his dark-hued soprano; it would be good to hear him as Xerxes again elsewhere, or even recorded at some future date. He has a unique timbre, with power to spare, a great facility for coloratura at dizzying heights and yet also the ability to spin long lines with tender expressivity when required. If Maniaci had the showpieces, then Michael Scarcelle enjoyed the comic possibilities of the servant Elviro, his agile dark baritone flipping up easily into pantomime falsetto and his athletic figure skipping easily up and down the auditorium steps for the “drag” scene of the “flower-seller”. Supporting the whole pyramid of Handelian voices was the resonant bass of Mark Schnaible as the dopey general Ariodate; it was good to hear this role sung by a low voice in its prime. The chorus of Boston Baroque sang and marched confidently as required, their obvious facility with the genre matching their excellent intonation and diction.
Throughout all, Martin Pearlman, conducting (when not pestered by Atalanta) his 25-strong band with verve, precision and great rhythm, kept a supporting eye and ear out for his singers and got the dynamic balance exactly right. This was high-class Handel, and if only Boston got to hear it for two nights, then that was Boston’s good fortune.
Sue Loder © 2008